Tom Thibodeau, Tony Soprano and the New York Knicks

Tom Thibodeau's coaching style never changes and that's a problem.

Tom Thibodeau’s coaching style never changes and that’s a problem.
Picture: Getty Images

Almost a year ago I he looked at the soul Knicks head coach Tom Thibodeau is looking for answers to his most pressing coaching dilemmas. Humans tend to make connections, compare and contrast to make sense of the chaos that surrounds us. In the world of the NBA, Thibodeau shares the gray matter that made Tony Soprano so compelling as a case study in the human capacity for change.

The first article raised more questions than it answered. When I wrote the first questionnaire almost a year ago, Thibodeau was still early in the season. Especially when compared to the magical atmosphere and results of the 2020-21 season, which earned him the title of coach of the year. Thibodeau’s stiffness has shown cracks through the first four games of this season. He allowed him to run the bench, trusted Cam Reddish to finish plays and handed the offensive line to Jalen Brunson. Julius Randle, Thibodeau’s Christopher Moltisanti, the guy you want to root for but do his best to stifle, had just six sacks through five games. Randle found open teammates, limited the overflow and scored on offense. The Knicks went 3-1 and Knicks fans felt like the Soprano crew they were hanging out in front of. Satriale’s pork shopsmoking a cigar, reading a newspaper, and enjoying a well-earned burn.

Then came the Milwaukee Bucks and Cleveland Cavaliers matchups, real NBA talent, good teams with winning records and more stars. The Knicks lost both easily. While none of the games were close, Thibodeau returned to many of the pitfalls that earned him the ire of Knicks fans last season. Mostly limiting Obi Toppin’s minutes to 17 and 15 minutes respectively. Toppin shot 4-7 in both games. Thibodeau’s relationship with Toppin and Randle was the nexus where most of his coaching problems converged. The extended leash he allows Randle is ten times the one he gives Toppin. Even ordinary people can recognize this. Thibodeau appears to be swayed by Randle’s outpouring of goodwill, especially if the power forward regains the toxic qualities that made him the player he once was in a Knicks uniform.

“We are soldiers. Soldiers don’t go to hell.” – Tony Soprano

So a year later where is Tony, I mean Tom? We don’t know if Thibodeau has his own Dr. Melfi as a voice of reason and accountability. The Knicks have been notoriously tight-lipped leading up to the layoff. Even if he did, which of his assistants would fill that role? Leon Rose? William “WorldWide” Wesley? Rick Brunson? He has known all three for years. They are basically versions of him with Silvio Dante, Salvatore “Big Pussy” Bonpensiero and Paulie Gualtieri enjoying the optics their friend brings as a coach. Thibodeau exudes confidence, leadership and accountability, even if those traits are misguided and flawed.

It’s also the current front office’s fault for its inability to draft/sign/trade/convince a bona fide No. 1 prospect to make MSG their home. Rose gave Thibodeau a dense, utility-heavy roster full of variety and untapped potential. But it is also hindered by duality and positional rigidity. Randle is the best player, but Toppin has the most promise. The bench is deep but rarely integrated with the starting five. Fournier is good from three in the heat, but that’s rarely the case.

“You lose more by being indecisive than by making a bad decision.” – Tony Soprano

After the team’s most recent loss against the Atlanta Hawks, something changed. While the losses to the Cavs and Bucks seemed rational because the Knicks were clearly losing to better teams, the Knicks’ 23-point lead against the Hawks was completely wasted. They were outscored 32-10 in the third quarter. That blown lead tied for the team’s third-largest blowout in 30 seasons. Almost as bad was the loss against the Oklahoma City Thunder, to which they gave up 145 points. And yes, Julius Randle was terrible. He shot 46.7 percent from the field and 33.3 percent from three this season. Remember those only six catches in the first four games? He now averages more possessions than assists. However, Thibodeau’s symbiotic dependence on Randle remains. Christopher Moltisanti was one of Tony’s biggest fears The sopranos. He was the family, but also the most significant responsibility of the crime family. His drinking, drug use and unpredictability were a thorn in Tony’s side. Randle is a scary fit for that role for Thibodeau.

When given the opportunity in one of the final episodes of the series, “Kennedy and Heidi”, Tony grabbed Christopher’s nose after a car accident, strangling his nephew to death and ending the threat he represented. Tony did Christopher a favor by saving him from himself. And perhaps this is the biggest difference between Tom and Tony. When Tony got out, he took it. When Tom looks up at the scoreboard and sees another lost lead, his gut reaction tells him that Randle is the answer.

“Sometimes it’s important to let them have the illusion that they’re in control.” – Jennifer Melfi

The first logical step in solving the Knicks’ current paradox is to fire Thibodeau. Maybe he’s willing to change, we’ve seen growth. He took over the three-point shot. He improved the defensive identity of the Knicks. At times, he got the best basketball out of Randle. However, his coaching style is stale and his stubbornness borders on arrogance when he relies too much on the starters. It was allowed by his boss, Rose, who built an average roster with no real first option. For each Knicks win, such as the highly entertaining revenge game against the Thunder on Monday, Thibodeau’s leash seems to grow. While it was great to see Miles “Deuce” McBride finally dust off the cobwebs to play suffocating defense on Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, neither play will make up for Thibodeau’s lack of offensive creativity or his typical nine-man rotation.

The Knicks are deep, but Thibodeau rarely reaches his full potential outside of Isaiah Hartenstein and Immanuel Quickley. Toppin, Reddish, Simek and McBride are treated like serfs by Thibodeau. What’s the point of going 12 deep when Quentin Grimes barely sees and Toppin sticks to the bench even though he’s having his best plus/minus nights? Toppin has the most potential of the young core, but is buried behind Thibodeau’s biggest crime. Leon Rose has assembled high-value guys in Derrick Rose, Hartenstein, Reddish and Jalen Brunson, but has paled when it comes to making a move to give the team the star it desperately needs.

Signing Brunson was a smart solution to the team’s two-decade dance where the guard was abandoned. He was a boon for a team loaded with players in need of offense and was worth every penny of the 4-year, $104 million deal. But roster development shouldn’t have stopped there. Perhaps the cost of entering the Donovan Mitchell sweepstakes was too high. Most Knicks fans didn’t want to give up more than two unprotected picks and a collection of Barrett, Toppin, Quickley and Quentin Grimes. But what about Dejounte Murray? The Knicks could have easily beaten what the Hawks offered for a guard who nearly averaged a triple-double last season. Since taking over, Rose has improved the roster through trade, free agency and the Draft, giving Thibodeau just enough to get around 40 wins a year and make the playoffs once. But he didn’t build a team ready to compete at a high level, and he didn’t hire a coach capable of leading a team of that caliber to the promised land.

Firing Thibodeau isn’t the only step that needs to be taken, but it’s the bare minimum. This Knicks roster is on the brink of possibility and goes against Thibodeau’s policy of winning at all costs. Achieving the full development of the young core will require a lot of trial and error disguised as losing. Thibodeau prefers the near-death coma like not playing Rose, Fournier and Randle. To reach mediocrity and beyond, this Knicks team needs the freedom to lose in order to learn. The Knicks currently reside in one of the furthest rings of Dante’s Inferno.

“I see I must be the sad clown; laughing on the outside, crying on the inside.” – Tony Soprano

Where does that leave the team? First step, fire Thibodeau and his entire coaching staff except for top assistant Johnnie Bryant. Hand the reins to Bryant and surround him with veteran and visionary assistant coaches. Then do whatever it takes to trade Randle while returning the trade value. If it ends up being a collection of expiring deals, a first-round pick and a young player, so be it. At this point, Randle should get a return similar to what the Knicks received for Kristaps Porziņģis from the Dallas Mavericks in 2017. With Randle gone, start Toppin at power forward with Grimes or Reddish at shooting guard and move Fournier to the bench. Simple right?

To be fair, Rose did a lot of good in her short time at the helm. Fortunately, the Knicks aren’t saddled with a myriad of terrible salaries like they have been in years past. They have a collection of tradeable contracts as well as one of the best young cores in the league. In a series of shrewd moves, they collected seven first-round picks over the next three seasons, though four of those were heavily protected. They have enough talent at almost every position to make a trade that drains them of their depth while keeping the roster balanced.

Despite all this, today more than in any other decade, talent wins. The NBA champions of the past five years have had the combined star talent in the starting lineup and bench, paired with an elite coach. The Knicks have an elite bench, and that’s about it. The Knicks don’t have a star, much less a superstar, and are saddled with a coach who has a symbiotic relationship with his best player and front-office boss. When Tony sits comfortably in the booth at Holsten’s diner with his family and Journey on the jukebox, the tension of the scene exceeds Tony’s leisurely menu browsing. By the time the screen goes black and we’re left in the dark and in our own thoughts, we can assume that Tony has been killed. Who pulled the trigger is less important than why. The answer to this is Tony’s own doing, by refusing to change. Through a series of events, most if not all of which were under her control, she chose a path that led her to that booth and that man. Just a member’s coat. When Thibodeau is finally handed his pink slip by old friend and confidante Rose, the why is just as easy to answer in his case.


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